From Tonga to NZ to the world: designer dreams big

Queenstown fashion designer Peni Moala in his home studio with some of his BENi summer collection...
Queenstown fashion designer Peni Moala in his home studio with some of his BENi summer collection. PHOTO: TRACEY ROXBURGH
Summer Times reporters recently spent time following Southerners going about their daily lives. Today Peni Moala shares his day with Tracey Roxburgh.

Queenstown's Peni Moala works from sun-up till sundown, chasing his dream to take his BENi fashion brand global.

The Project Runway NZ designer works full-time as a department manager in the resort's Spotlight store, "and at night, I'm sewing".

Up at 7am, he's at the Remarkables Park store by 8.30am.

Peni, pronounced Beni, works there until 6.30pm, before going home for a quick break then working on his collection.

"Some nights I could go on till midnight, 1am, and then some nights I could do two hours and say `OK, I'm not feeling it', stop myself and ... just ponder on the design."

Born in his father's village, Pea, in Tonga, Peni is the second-eldest of seven siblings.

The family relocated to Auckland when Peni was a year old because his parents wanted their children to have a better life and get a better education.

The 30-year-old spent hours of his childhood watching his mother, aunties and grandmother weaving tapa cloth.

"I was always the kid that would sit by their side and go `I want to do that, I want to be part of that'."

Watching a fashion show on TV when he was 8 cemented his future.

"This beautiful, stunning model walked down this runway [wearing] this black fitted bodice and this huge princess skirt.

"I fell in love with the show, but I fell in love with the people, being in awe of this dress ... I remember it as if it was yesterday; I said `that's what I want to be'.

"I didn't know what `that' was, but I was determined to figure it out."

Initially, his mother taught him how to sew before a compulsory sewing class at intermediate school got him hooked, and he continued at high school.

"I was the only big Tongan boy in that sewing class and I was like `I don't care'."

After leaving school he worked full-time, earning good money but says his life was a "shambles".

He gave himself a year to pay off his debt then moved to Invercargill, got his degree in fashion design and met his partner, Rex Cook, and mentor Lindah Lepou.

Peni relocated to Queenstown in 2016 and has not looked back, releasing his first BENi collection in November.

Eventually, he wants that to be his full-time focus.

"I want to become global."

Describing his aesthetic as "a mixture of everything" from streetwear and "athleisurewear" to evening gowns and jackets, Peni says he is inspired by his Tongan heritage and culture, which he puts a modern twist on.

Aside from the women in his family, Lepou has been his biggest influencer, he says.

"She's inspired me a lot [and taught me] don't forget who you are as a person and don't forget where you come from, because that's what makes your product valuable."

His advice to others: "Don't be afraid to dream big ... and don't let anybody put you down. As a gay Tongan man, I've had people put me down. You've got to push it aside.

"There is a light at the end of the tunnel - you've just got to keep pushing yourself to get where you want to get."

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